Atletico banking on goal-machine Costa to leave Messi in the shade
The question of which player on the opposing side you would prefer to have playing in your team does not usually provoke a very open response, especially not on the eve of a big Champions League game, but Dani Alves broke with protocol last night and just blurted out the obvious: "Diego Costa".
His fellow Brazilian, albeit now a member of Vicente Del Bosque's Spain squad, has been Atletico Madrid's outstanding player this season.
If he delivers against Barcelona tonight in the Champions League quarter-final first leg, he could claim to be player of the season in Spain and in Europe.
"It's not just for his goals," said Barca right-back Alves of the 25-year-old. "It's the way he works so hard for the team."
Atletico manager Diego Simeone described his striker's appetite and spirit as "contagious" after his goal brought them back into the game against Athletic Bilbao at the weekend.
They won 2-1 to stay top. Costa had put them there in the previous game, scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win against Betis. His 62 goals for Atletico in 126 matches might not match Lionel Messi's and Cristiano Ronaldo's ratios, but give him a higher goals per games average than predecessors such as Diego Forlan, Fernando Torres and Sergio Aguero.
He has 33 goals this season, having replaced Radamel Falcao as the team's main striker. "It's the runs he makes down the channels when he just sets off and no one can stop him," says the Colombian about his successor.
Costa's importance to Atletico tonight will match Messi's for Barcelona. Messi has scored in his last five games, making it 17 in his last 12 matches. He is also on 67 goals in the Champions League, just four from equalling Raul's European Cup record of 71.
Messi also has an incredible record against Atletico, with 17 goals in 15 matches but this is the first time he faces them in the Champions League, the competition where Costa has scored seven goals in just five matches.
Like Messi, he has scored in the last five games, and as Athletic Bilbao's Ander Iturraspe said: "You have to work very hard to score 25 goals for Atletico."
Costa's team-mate, defender Diego Godin, added: "He gets better and better every day. He is capable of opening a game up for us with strength or with his skill."
It's that mixture of brute force and Brazilian technique that will test Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique tonight. The room for the 'further development' that Godin talks about is also a concern for Atletico fans. Will he want to continue his education with Jose Mourinho at Chelsea next season?
Godin's battle with Messi will be key tonight. The Uruguayan was criticised for appearing to celebrate an injury to Messi in a game earlier in the season when he clutched his hamstring.
Tonight's game also pits Barça midfielder Xavi against the player he sees as replacing him in the Spain team after the World Cup.
"Koke is the man who will orchestrate the national side's midfield for the next 10 years," he said. "He never gives the ball away."
There is also a stark contrast in the two goals. Atletico have on-loan Chelsea 'keeper Thibaut Courtois, who at 21, has a potential trophy-laden career ahead of him. At 38, Jose Pinto is coming to the end of his, and is only playing because Barça's first choice Victor Valdes suffered a season-ending cruiciate ligament injury.
Alves and coach Tata Martino denied they would prefer to play the second leg at home but there is an added pressure to go to the Vicente Calderon, where Atletico are unbeaten this season, with a good result.
Alves also defended compatriot Neymar, whose form for Barca has dipped and whose goals return remains lower than both Alexis Sanchez and Pedro, players who have invariably been relegated to the bench to accommodate the expensive new signing.
Alves said: "What we are seeing from him now is perfectly normal. What was not normal was the way he started his career at Barça, adapting so quickly. It feels as though the criticism started when the details of his contract were revealed."
Neymar's estimated cost has risen to more than £80m with the recalculation of the deal that took him from Santos to Barca. He has been outshone by Costa, the player Brazil rejected last year, allowing him to switch allegiances to Spain. Neymar can take consolation in the fact that he is not the only one who has been left in Costa's shadow this season. (© Independent News Service)
BARCELONA V ATLETICO MADRID, LIVE, SETANTA IRE/SKY SPORTS 1, 7.45